The Rover Boys in the Air/Chapter 25
THE TRAIL OF THE TOURING CAR
All started in astonishment at the footprints before them. What Tom had said was true—the prints were altogether too large to have been made by their own feet in walking through the woods.
"How could I have made such a mistake!" murmured Dick.
"I wonder where you got mixed up?" said Sam. "I looked at the prints down by the swamp. They seemed to be O. K. there."
"Then that is where I must have gotten mixed up—maybe after we pulled Tom from the mud."
"We'll have to go back," came from Tom. "Too bad! But it can't be helped. I don't blame you, Dick," he added, hastily.
"Neither do I," put in Sam. "Anybody might make such a mistake, with nothing but that smoky lantern to guide him."
They turned back, and after a while reached the edge of the swamp. Here, after a long search, they found their own footprints.
"Now we are all right!" cried Sam. "Come on!"
"Yes, and let us be careful that we don't make another mistake," added Tom.
"I don't know about this," said Dick, hesitatingly. "Somehow, it doesn't look altogether right to me."
"Why not?" queried his two brothers.
"It doesn't seem to be the right direction. But they are our footprints, so we may as well follow them."
They went on and proceeded for several hundred feet in silence. Then Tom uttered a cry of dismay.
"Well, this beats the Dutch!" he gasped.
"What's wrong now?" asked Dick.
"Do you know what we are doing? We are heading for the road again, instead of for the place where we left the Dartaway!"
"Tom!" gasped Sam. "Are you sure?"
"I am. See that fallen tree? We are about half way between the road and the swamp."
"Yes, I remember the tree, and you are right," said Dick. "This is too bad! And when we are in such a hurry, too!" His voice had a note of despair in it.
"Well, keep to this trail now," said Sam, "Don't miss it,—only follow it backwards."
Once more the three Rover boys turned, and now they scanned every foot of the trail with care. Again they passed the swamp and there discovered how they had made a false turn. Then they hurried forward, under the trees and through the bushes.
The darkness of night had closed in all around them, and the only light was that of the smoky lantern, and from the few stars that shone down through the tree tops. Everything was silent, excepting for the occasional note of a tree toad, or the "glunk" of a frog in the swamp.
"We ought to be there by now," said Sam, a few minutes later.
"There she is!" cried Dick, swinging the lamp up over his head. And in the widening circle of light the three youths beheld the biplane, resting exactly as they had left the craft.
"Thank goodness!" cried Tom. "I was beginning to think we had made another mistake."
They hung the lantern on a tree limb and then lit the lights attached to the biplane, for they had insisted that the Dartaway be supplied with these,—not for the purpose of flying at night, but so that the machine could be lit up in the dark if it rested in the road or in some other place where some person or vehicle might run into it.
It was an easy task to bring the biplane out into the opening in the woods, and this done the boys took a general view of the situation, so that they might get their bearings. Then all but one lantern were extinguished, and the engine was started up and they got aboard the craft, Dick taking the wheel.
"Now, Sam, it is up to you to give me the points of the compass," said Dick. "And, Tom you keep your eyes open for the lights of Sherodburg and Fremville."
Into the sky with its twinkling stars swept the Dartaway, and Sam gave the direction to be taken by consulting the tiny pocket compass he carried. Of course these directions were crude, but they were better than nothing, and soon Tom cried out that he could make out the lights of a settlement in the dim distance.
"That must be Sherodburg," said Dick.
"Why stop there?" asked Tom. "I don't think the touring car did. More than likely they streaked through for all they were worth. Why not go on straight to Fremville? That is a much larger town, and we'll be sure to find a telephone there, or a telegraph office."
"Just what I was thinking," replied his big brother.
They swept over Sherodburg five minutes later, dipping down so low that they could see every house and every store. They looked along the main street for the touring car, but only carriages and farm wagons were in view.
"I wish we had a searchlight," said Dick, with a sigh. "If we had one we could easily keep that highway in view all the way to Fremville."
"Well, we haven't one, so we'll have to make out without it," answered Tom. "Fly as low as you can and we'll try to keep the highway in sight. Most of the farmhouses have lights in 'em, and that will help a little."
Dick flew as low as seemed advisable, and by straining their eyes the boys managed to make out the winding road, lined on either side with farms and patches of woods. Occasionally they swept over small collections of houses,—hamlets located between the town they had left behind and the one they were approaching.
The breeze had died down utterly, so Dick had little trouble in manipulating the biplane. He sent the Dartaway onward at a good rate of speed, the engine making a noise like a battery of gatling guns. More than likely many a farmer and his family were astonished at the sounds and wondered what they meant. If any saw the biplane the Rovers did not know it.
"I guess we are coming up to Fremville now," said Sam, when the distant lights of a town showed on the horizon. "We'll have to look for some safe place to land, and that is not so easy in the darkness."
Dick slowed down the motor as they drew closer to the town, which was composed of several streets of stores, half a dozen churches, some schools, and a hundred or more houses. He made a circle, and then, seeing a level field back of some of the houses, headed for it, and shut off the engine. They landed without anybody seeing them do it.
"Tom, I think you had better watch the machine, while Sam and I make some inquiries," said Dick, as he alighted.
"Oh, don't you think I had better go too?" asked Tom anxiously.
"We can't leave the Dartaway alone."
At that moment a man came out of the darkness, attracted by the voices. He was surprised to see the biplane. He told the lads that his house was close by and wanted to know what they were doing.
"We are on the trail of a big, enclosed touring car that came this way," answered Dick. "Did you see anything of it?"
"Say, that must be the machine Jim Hickey told about!" cried the man. "Jim said it went tearin' through like mad, about half an hour ago."
"Which way was it headed?'* asked Tom, eagerly.
"I don't know—I didn't ask. Jim could tell you."
"Where is he?"
"Jim? Why he keeps the barber shop, down on the corner of Main Street and Lumber Alley."
"Do you know if he is at his barber shop now?" asked Dick.
"He must be—he was going there when he saw the auto."
The boys waited no longer, but asking the man to look after the Dartaway during their absence, they hurried to the main street of the town and then to the barber shop in question. Jim Hickey was busy shaving a customer but he was willing to suspend operations long enough to answer the Rover boys.
"Did I see the car?" he cried. "If I hadn't I'd be a dead man this minit!" he cried. "She was going some, she was!"
"Which way did the car go?" asked all the boys.
"Down Main Street to the bridge and then turned around the church corner."
"Where does that road lead to?" asked Tom.
"Leads to Plankville and Bulltown."
"Yes, but they can't git through on that road," put in the customer, wiping the lather from around his mouth so he could talk. "The bridge is shut off—they're fixin' it—went at the work this morning."
"You are sure about that?" queried Dick, eagerly.
"Sure, I saw 'em takin' up the plankin' of the bridge. They will have to come back."
"How far is that bridge from here?"
"About three miles."
"Is there any other side road?" put in Sam.
"None that would be good enough for an auto. The north road is all sand an' mud."
"Come on!" cried Dick to his brothers. "I think we've cornered them! Come on!" And he rushed from the barber shop, and Sam and Tom followed, leaving the barber and his customer staring after them in astonishment.